The Rapidly Changing Landscape of the Food Industry
January marked the return of Saturn Cafe to the Bay Area, and hungry vegans and vegetarians can rejoice!! As the landscape of the restaurant industry is moving and shifting in response to the dramatic impacts of COVID-19, Saturn has had to rethink its operations as well. In lieu of returning to its brick-and-mortar roots, Saturn is launching contactless pick-up and delivery service in the form of their new Ghost Kitchen located at 5333 Adeline St in Oakland. So, if you’ve been craving a Diablo burger and delicious fresh, hot fries, or maybe your favorite Sunday morning breakfast burrito, your prayers have been answered.
Many of you may be wondering what in the world is a ghost kitchen. They are also referred to as a cloud kitchen, and both are the evolution of its predecessor the commissary kitchen. In short, a ghost kitchen allows a restaurant operator to share space in a larger kitchen complex with numerous other operators. The ghost kitchen functions not only as a food prep space but also as a pick-up and delivery hub where orders can be placed, typically online and efficiently executed for your swift, safe enjoyment.
One of the distinctions between this type of operation and a more conventional setting is the lack of individual branding onsite and potential barriers to attracting new customers. Operators must really be savvy in branding and marketing their food to customers, particularly through social media, since they don’t have the same opportunities for curb appeal and drive-by visibility. This is an emerging trend in cities across the country. Early rollout has included the Bay area, Portland, LA, Chicago, Miami, and Dallas to name just a few. For many, many restaurateurs who lost their locations and/or leases due to the pandemic, it is a wonderful opportunity to get back to feeding their loyal customers and hopefully attract an even larger fan base. It is also a great gateway for smaller start-ups to risk a much lower initial investment to test the waters. So, whether it’s a gateway back to a full-service restaurant or an incubator for those seeking proof of concept, the model appears to be here to stay.
Saturn Cafe isn’t alone in having to reinvent the way they serve their customers. The entire food service industry is having to pivot business models to adapt to changing times. Derek Domino, SR VP of Sales at Bbot, a digital ordering platform for the food industry, says “COVID-19 did not change consumer trends, it merely accelerated them by ten years, with more and more customers preferring to have food delivered rather than opting to dine in.” I blame NETFLIX for this phenomenon!
The restaurant of the future seems to have arrived a bit ahead of schedule. Analysts in the industry have been predicting a major shift in restaurant trends for several years now. Jean Chick, principal analyst for the giant Deloitte Consulting LLP says that the three biggest demands from consumers are convenience, digital transaction options and safety. People also now expect the same quality and freshness for delivered food as they do in the dining room. For restaurants big and small, the pressure to “get it right” is tremendous. Numerous innovations are being made in the packaging sector to aid in this. Everything from snazzy vented containers to keep your French fries crispy and hot instead of soggy and not, to an increased push for more sustainable/compostable options.
Among one of the more exciting/terrifying (I can’t decide which camp I’m in yet???) trends is the announcement of autonomous food delivery, or as I affectionately call it, ROBO-DELIVERY!! Santa Monica based company Motional announced Dec. 16, 2021, that it has entered into a $4 billion joint venture with the Hyundai Motor Group for fully electric, autonomous delivery vehicles that will be dispatched by Uber. I just want to know where my flying car is???
One would think in the world of vegan and vegetarian restaurants that the stakes are even higher to survive because the client base is significantly smaller. While this may have been true historically, this trend may be changing. Often considered a purely niche market, according to the Plant Based Foods Association, consumer demand has increased 27% in the last two years and is the fastest growing food category. There may be some correlation between COVID-19 and people wanting to embrace a healthier diet but the rise in high profile celebrities and athletes singing the praises of a vegan diet surely has helped. Who could have ever imagined that legendary NFL quarterback Tom Brady would credit his conversion to a vegan lifestyle would have him feeling stronger and healthier at 44 than he ever did in his 20’s? It appears more and more people are discovering the many benefits of eating a plant-based diet, even if only part of the time. These are all hopeful emerging trends that will glean a multitude of benefits for people, the planet and plant-based restaurants alike.
Unfortunately, there were so many wonderful independently owned vegan and vegetarian restaurants that didn’t survive the ravaging effects of the ongoing pandemic. From right coast to left and many points in between, so many neighborhood plant-based eateries have shuttered operations for good. In LA, Elf Café of Echo Park and Krimsey’s in the valley will be sorely missed. Portland just lost vegan mainstay PixieRetreat, although they will continue selling their crave inducing Lil’Puddin’ via retail and online. Seattle and Portland saw the sad demise of the nation’s only two vegan Tikki Bars, No Bones. Seattle’s longest running vegetarian restaurant, Silence Heart Nest, announced that after a 34-year run, they will be closing their doors for good, sighting the financial hardship of the pandemic and rising expenses.
Despite all the closings, there are still a bevy of vegan and vegetarian places that are thriving. Bay area and LA standout Gracias Madre continues to set a high bar for fine dining, Oakland favorite The Butcher’s Son and national chains like Veggie Grill continue to expand as well as many others. We are excited to see what new concepts and trends continue to emerge from such uncertain and devastating times. This industry has never ceased to amaze me in its capacity to rise up, get creative and foster some of the most creative, dedicated people I have known. Their drive and motivation to reinvent and innovate is nothing short of inspirational.
It is inevitable that the restaurant industry will continue to morph and change to meet the new demands of our changing world. Hopefully we will once again be able to break bread with friends and loved ones and feel safe eating in public again soon. In the meantime, be sure to support your neighborhood eateries any chance you get, your patronage is the only thing that will get them through. The Saturn Café is certainly excited about this new opportunity in Oakland to feed you all again. Many thanks for your continued support!
By Jae Larsen
Jae is joining the Saturn family as a guest blogger and long-time fan of vegetarian and vegan cuisine. She is a chef and former restauranter from the Pacific Northwest, who is currently riding out the pandemic in rural New Hampshire. She is an avid writer, predominately around the topic of sustainability and the built environment. She has owned a small design build firm for the past two and a half decades and is passionate about her commitment to building healthy, responsible spaces and communities. She is using her time in New Hampshire to explore her gardening skills, something this long time urbanite has had little opportunity to cultivate.